The Thorny Choice of A True Todd Fan...

Review by Dann Anthony Novak (Switch to

Way back when, among the first concerts I ever attended (when I would have my mom drop me off and pick me up!), Todd played at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. He was the only act on the bill, and split the show into one half of him solo (with taped backing tracks), and the second half with the then-brand-new "Utopia" line-up. I have always recalled this show with tremendous fondness; I remember his amazing energy (climbing the lighting rigs during "Zen Archer", for instance), and the overwhelming sonic complexity of his music. Not to mention the thousands of logo-imblazoned tennis balls dropped onto the crowd at the show's zenith.

I gradually got more hipped by others and by myself to his catalogue, becoming a complete acolyte over the years. I worked at building my library haphazardly. I started with "RA", then went in both directions with acquisitions both historical and contemporary. In every case I found myself influenced as a musician and entranced as a fan.

Later, I drove down from college to see him at the Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. This would have been, I believe, the "Back To The Bars" tour. While the show was excellent, when I picked up the album I was thrown by Todd's screeching high register singing and strangley off-kilter performances of some songs. I mention this because, in last night's performance, it seemed like he was even further gone down that particular road.

Would I have missed this chance to see the man again these many years later? Not on your life! (I am also a dedicated Joe Jackson fan, but that's for another board...)

Being the long-time admirer I am, I find myself of two minds about last night's performance. On the one hand, it was terrific to see him so nakedly alone. Just a man and his guitar and piano, reinterpreting the songs I had grown to consider as part of the bedrock of my own musical highway. Recognizing anew the mastery in the chording, progression and melodies, and the incredible breadth of Todd's catalogue - from pop-perfect to raging rock. Revelling, along with a couple thousand brothers and sisters, in spending time with an old friend, hearing familiar notes and words. Feeling that rush that only music can bring, immediately taking to places and times in my life when songs like "...Common Man", and "Compassion", were my instant soundtrack.

On the other hand, however, I was somewhat taken aback by the actual performance of these golden nuggets from my own personal music vault. Other reviews posted on this site mention things like drunkeness, shoddy timing, disdain for the audience, and generally lackluster affect. I must say that, regardless of the cause, I too experienced some of the same impressions last night. Whether it was the strained, "almost there" vocals, the relative lack of any nuance with the instruments in most cases, or the extrordinarily off-color choices involving Todd's stage patter - the thing taken as a whole left a feeling of "Oh, dear..." banging around in my head.

That is not to say, however, that there were not moments of absolute brilliance shining through the muck spilled onto the stage. The decision to include the string quartet "Ethel" on the tour, and employed to absolutely spellbinding effect on "Pretending To Care" and the closing tunes, is inspired. The variences in sonic shading they brought to the few tunes done in concert with Todd was spot on, and brought new life and emotion to the music. "Beloved Infedel" and "Tiny Demons" were two performances which Todd played with relative subtlety and restraint, connecting much more securely and emotionally with the audience as a result. The bossa-nova take in "In Your Eyes" was a delight, if made somewhat murky by Todd's seemingly strangled vocals.

On the downside? The ham-handed piano work on "Hello, It's Me", which removed the beautiful pop-music sheen of the tune. The use of electronic effects that turned the shimmering glossiness of the acoustic guitar into a fuzzy, soulless emulation of Stratocaster soup. And, as mentioned above, Todd's use of the harsh, tuneless upper register in his vocals. What, upon hearing the "...Bars" album all those years ago, seemed to be road fatigue now seems to have become a regular part of Todd's arsenal, utilized by him as the whim seizes. (Interestingly, there were many moments in the show last night where Todd effortlessly slipped into a pure, keening and on-target falsetto. This leads me to believe that the high note yelp he barks out is not so much a necessity as a choice.)

Now, here is the conundrum all of the above posits on us as Todd's fans: Do we accept the man's right to carry on as he sees fit, or do we wish mightily for a harkening back to the past framework and execution of his music? Clearly Todd has always forged his own particular way through the forest of rock and popular music; why should his current posture (with all of the positives and negatives noted above) be considered as anything other than the immediate path he now is pleased to pursue. We have the right to decide whether to accompany him, or leave him to his own wanderings. We do not have any say as to how, what, where or with whom he performs.

My position is that, because Todd creates at the pleasure of his own muse, not mine, I can join with him as he self-destructs or demonstrates humor and warmth, sometimes both in the same evening as was evidenced last night. Conversely, I can let him alone, circle back to him in time to check in, and pull the old beloved LP's worth of tunes from the shelf as I wish in the meantime. With an artist as iconclastic as Todd Rungren has always demonstrated himself to be, it seems somehow obscene to me that I would presume to advise him on what musical or performance-oriented choices he might make. I bought the ticket, I'll take what I get. I can comment, but I have no standing to insist that he conform to what I would want him to be.

In that context, then, I am comfortable with, and truly enjoyed, the man I saw onstage last night. Like many visits with old friends, it may have scraped away some of the chrome from my shining musical memories, but the solid structure underneath remains intact. To hear those lyrics, those melodies, in whatever facisimle Todd presented them, was to be thrilled afresh by the genius and creativity of their existence. The man was, and will always be, a strangely brilliant star on the far edge of my musical galaxy. Someday that star will be extiguished, and while we may always have the recordings of it's blinding flashes and darker periods, we are blessed to gaze upon it now as it is, live and in person, on the stage before us.

In fact, while during last night's show Todd may have alternately burned, fizzeled, smoked and dimmed, it was this fan's choice to never look away during any part of it.

Other reviews for Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson and Ethel 2005
05/17/2005 - Wilshire - Los Angeles, CA

Other reviews for overall Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson and Ethel 2005

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